Sure, all that rolling, crawling and standing your baby mastered over the first eighteen months of life was incredible, but watching your toddler learn to speak is nothing short of amazing. Children’s brains are genetically programmed to absorb and learn language, and most do so at a breathtaking pace when you consider how complex a skill set it is (think about the fact that most three-year-olds can’t yet tie their shoes, but they can rattle off full sentences and carry on meaningful conversations). Moreover, that moment when your baby makes the move from understanding your words (“receptive language”) to using them herself (“expressive language”), is genuinely, well, brilliant.
Research suggests that verbal skills are about 50 percent heritable, meaning that the other 50 percent comes from environment and experience, both home and school. So what can you do to help your little one learn to talk? Keep these science-backed tips in mind:
1. Listening is more important than talking: For years we’ve been hearing that talking to your kid is important – highly verbal families produce verbal kids, so the thought was to use tons of words, narrating the day-to-day for your child. But recent studies have shown that even though saying words to your child is important, listening and responding to their words is even more so. Kids with “high responding” parents have been shown to be six months ahead of their peers in verbal skill.
That means listening to the sounds coming out of your toddler’s mouth is equally, if not more important than chattering away to him as you go about the day. When he utters those newfound words and mini-sentences to you, pause, make eye contact and respond. You’re letting him know that his words have an impact and giving him incentive to continue.
2. Resist the urge to chime in: Even though you want to listen and respond, make sure you’re not so enthusiastic that you step on your toddler’s toes. We’re often so eager for our kids to talk that we inadvertently interrupt them when they’re mid-thought. Practice biting your tongue a bit when your toddler is speaking – just make eye contact and let him know you’re listening. Don’t finish his sentences.
For example, let’s say your little one pipes up with the first line to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” You’re excited to hear it and you might want to join in, but see what happens if you just watch, listen, and nod your head to his singing instead of taking over the song yourself.
3. Follow your child’s eyes and interest: Any moment of the day is an opportunity for learning words, but you’ll be surprised by the boost your toddler gets if you talk about the object or action he’s interest in, not what interests you.
Let’s say you’re at the park and a big fluffy dog walks by. You’re intrigued, and kids love dogs, right? But your son is riveted by a stick he’s found and is now poking in the dirt by his feet. Instead of pointing and talking about the dog, go where his attention is: “I see that stick, you’re making a hole!” Instead of directing your toddler’s focus, follow his curiosity. That’s where the best learning happens.
4. Use your hands: You don’t need to use formal sign language, but gesturing has been linked to better verbal skills. Remember that words are only one part of communication; pointing, blowing kisses, waving, demonstrating and emphasizing with your hands all helps too.
5. Read, sing, and turn off the TV: Rather than saving reading for bedtime, rotate it in with all your other playtime ideas so your toddler doesn’t only associate books with going to sleep. Also notice how much you read in front of your child, as her seeing you devour a novel sends a pretty important message.
Singing helps kids learn language because a musical tune helps the brain encode words (just think about how you can remember the exact lyrics to some of the songs you listened to decades ago). Sit on the floor facing your toddler and break it down with “Wheels on the Bus” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” And if you don’t have the best children’s song repertoire, try heading to music or story time at the local library.
And finally, while TV doesn’t actually melt brain cells, it also doesn’t help your kid develop linguistically. A big reason for this goes back to the principle that listening matters more than talking, and the TV can’t respond to your child. Simply put: any other activity your child could be doing in the real, physical world is better stimulation and practice for his growing brain and booming vocabulary.